March 20 2015: Coloring the Past

A few thoughts on this week’s PhotoShop exercise. I’m really enjoying working with Photoshop, but thank God for that history bar that allows the user to delete failed attempts at colorizing. The first attempt at adding any color or texture is always abysmal because of the tendency to lay it on too thick, resulting in a cartoon effect. In almost every case, a subtler palate is what is required. Thankfully PS allows the user to “dial it back” quiet easily.

Coming on the heels of last week’s readings, I have been thinking lately about the ethics of altering historical photographs. Many of the tools we are using, such as the dodge and burn tools, simply bring out the faded details which were there originally. Even eliminating decay seems fair game since those specs and scratches were not part of the original photo, simply evidence of decay or improper preservation. Up to this point we are restoring the photograph to its original condition.

Adding color when color was not originally present is fine when labeled as such. Like dodge and burn tools, color can highlight textures and details that were originally there, but which have been lost to the ravages of time. They can help bring immediacy to a photograph for an audience unused to looking at black-and-white images.*

19th and early 20th Century photographers and filmmakers usually tinted their images to great effect. These tints often disappear over time, but can be resurrected through the magic of PhotoShop. And certain colors, such as amber, are so suggestive of the Victorian era that their use in photo restoration has become almost a cliche.

A film history aside: The earliest films were hand-colored, producing beautiful images such as this: Annabelle and this: Trip to the Moon. They were hand-painted on an assembly line basis by workers, usually women, each of whom used fine camel-hair brushes to paint one color, frame-by-frame. A one-reel (10 minute) film could easily have 10,000 individual frames. Manufacturers could then give exhibitors a choice between a black and white version or the color version at a premium price.

All of which is to say that our classroom exercise has ample historic precedent. Only the tools are different.

* Film director Peter Bogdanovich reflects my sentiments precisely when he recently said, “You don’t like watching black-and-white movies? Don’t be an idiot.”

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